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DoD Cuts Air Force Aircraft Fleet
Editor's note: The original version of this story, published Jan. 9, erroneously reported that program budget decision No. 720 cuts a total of $16.4 billion from B-52, U-2, and F-117 accounts. The correct total is $2.6 billion.
The reporting error was the result of misinterpreting the PBD's end-strength reductions as dollar amounts. InsideDefense.com regrets the error and has reprinted the story in full, with correct numbers, below.
The Defense Department plans to accelerate retirement of key Air Force aircraft, including nearly half the B-52 bomber force and the full U-2 spy plane and F-117 stealth fighter fleets, in a bid to save $2.6 billion and boost spending for the services' prized F-22A fighter aircraft program.
In a Dec. 20 internal budget document, Pentagon Comptroller Tina Jonas approved significant spending changes between fiscal years 2007 and 2011 that were proposed by the Air Force. The moves, which affect the service's procurement and personnel accounts, are designed to realign resources to produce a more lethal, agile and streamlined force, it states.
The document, program budget decision 720, carries the imprimatur of the Defense Department leadership and reflects decisions made in the nearly complete Quadrennial Defense Review, according to these sources.
The decisions, however, will require more than support from Pentagon officials; the Air Force will have to convince Congress, which has rejected recent Air Force proposals to retire major aircraft types early, according to defense analysts.
“The Air Force is looking to get rid of what they call ‘tired iron,'” said Christopher Bolkcom, an aviation expert at the Congressional Research Service. “Congress in the past has not allowed them to retire airplanes.”
Similar attempts in recent years -- including moves to stand down B-1B bombers, KC-135E aerial refueling aircraft, and the F-117 -- have met stiff resistance on Capitol Hill. But this time around, the Pentagon appears to be taking a new approach in proposing to retire three programs at once.
“Now they're going for the whole enchilada,” Bolkcom said. “You can see that they seem to be launching a frontal assault.”
Underscoring the difficulty that the Air Force may face in selling this plan to Congress, the fiscal year 2006 defense appropriations bill, signed Dec. 30 by President Bush, includes $9.4 billion to maintain the fleet of 52 F-117s.
“The conferees believe it is premature to retire any F-117 aircraft at this time,” lawmakers wrote in the conference report accompanying the final spending bill. “The F-117 provides a unique capability to the combatant commanders and remains the only tactical stealth aircraft capable of delivering certain types of precision munitions.”
The fiscal maneuvers detailed in the 14-page PBD would allow the Air Force to inject an additional $1 billion into its prized F-22A program, stretching production through fiscal year 2010 -- two years longer than previously planned -- and raising total acquisition numbers from 179 aircraft to 183.
To that end, the PBD trims $3.3 billion from the F-22A program in fiscal years 2007 and 2008 and provides $4.4 billion in fiscal years 2009 and 2010.
The Pentagon also plans to terminate the B-52 Stand-off Jammer System, an electronic attack capability, saving $1.1 billion across the five-year spending plan, according to the PBD.
Cuts to the long-range B-52 bomber fleet would reduce the inventory from 94 aircraft to 56, a move that would not affect any international treaties, the document states. The Air Force is banking on saving of $680 million in its procurement accounts and reducing its B-52 personnel ranks by 3,924 airmen.
The 33-plane fleet of high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance aircraft would be retired by 2011, according to the budget decision, in a move that garners $1 billion in savings from the procurement accounts and 3,309 fewer personnel to operate the fleet. United Press International first reported details of the U-2 cut last week.
Cuts to the stealthy F-117A Nighthawk, which played a prominent role in the open salvos of the 1991 war with Iraq but has seen limited duty more recently, produced $1.1 billion in savings from the procurement accounts and reductions to the Air Force end strength of 5,180 billets.
In addition to these decrements, the Air Force plans to slash its fleet of C-21 jets from 76 to 38 aircraft. C-21s are used to ferry Pentagon executives, cargo and execute medical missions.“There are some pretty sound operational reasons” for the Air Force's move to retire these aircraft early, said Rebecca Grant, vice president for defense at Defense Forecast International, a Washington-based consulting firm. “What you see is an attempt to get down to the right force structure that's more manageable and sustainable.”